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The art of the director of photography

Three leading DoPs reveal the secrets of their craft, and explain the techniques they used to create hits like War and Peace, The Night Manager and The Secret Life of Twins


  George Steel
(Credits: War and Peace, Peaky Blinders, The Honourable Woman, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death)

You start off wanting to do the edgiest stuff you can do. [Director] Tom Harper and I wanted to reinvent Tolstoy. In the end you realise the real satisfaction is in telling the story in a simple but beautiful way.  We set out to do something that would appeal to the BBC1 viewer.
I had six weeks prep which is probably not enough for something as mammoth as War and Peace.
But you start where you start – and that’s at the script and we went through it scene by scene, working out what can we do here and what can we do there. You construct an ethos or an approach for connecting to the script visually.
We wanted it to be slightly old fashioned and referential to the old productions. But we also wanted it to be modern and fresh. Visually we wanted a simplicity to it – a Russianness if you like. The simplicity of Russian film is what makes it so special.
The way we lit the series changed as the story got progressively darker. Over time it became slightly grittier, with more contrast, less colour. It started off very colourful, and we eased the colour out.
We started episode one in St Petersberg. At that time, it was the most modern of cities. We wanted it to be glitzy, rich, glistening and very glossy looking.
In the grade, we started off in a direction that was quite Russian and quite dark. But you don’t want to alienate your audience. So, as hesitant as I was to change the look, we did change it, to make it brighter and more accessible.

Colour was really important to the story. I love colour. But in period photography you are slightly limited in your sources, to firelight and candles, so there’s a limited palette of colours. But I was keen, because people had such amazing costumes, to keep the colour in it – and not for it to become de-saturated. Lots of people use de-saturation as a short cut for filmic, but I don’t believe that is true. I believe what is filmic and cinematic can be still colourful.
We used the Alexa XT. We shot using 1970s Kowa anamorphic lenses which we cropped out into 16.9. I like the slight aberration of the anamorphic lens. It gives you a bit of a period look in that things are not entirely faithful and they are slightly different.
We shot most of it at T4 [focal length stop], because I wanted a bit of depth of field. It is very trendy nowadays to shoot very wide open, with a shallow focus. I don’t particularly like that – I find it distracting and gimmicky. And, when you have great actors, you don’t want to miss anything. An actor like Paul Dano likes to bob and weave – he’s a hard actor to keep in shot. It’s that sponteneity that makes him great, so you don’t want to be worried about him being in focus as well.
We shot lots on sticks, a dolly and a gimbal. This helped give a classical feel. We only shot handheld in the battle, just for flexibility. And we shot the Rostov family all handheld, to give them a slightly different edge so they were slightly more bohemian. But it was also about creating a difference. We shot the Bolkonsky’s in their grand palace on a dolly and sticks. For it to be effective you need to chop against something. The Rostovs were meant to be the people we related to more.
The inner life of the characters in the book is the hardest thing to depict. For the most part it was shot single camera, but we did have a second camera, and we were always ready to shoot if we spotted something – such as sky, snow or shadows.

The reason I am a DoP is to photograph what actors can do. It doesn’t matter what distractions or explosions there are. If there is no emotional core there, there is no point.
The job of the DoP is to give the actors the most comfortable environment in which to be able to do what they do. Being an actor has got to be one of  the hardest things in the world. Everyone thinks they can be an actor. But when you see what great actors can do, you realise how special it is.
You have got to create an environment where it is as stress free as possible. So on a practical level, you shouldn’t create an environment where an actor can’t move more than three inches without having to be relit. You should light the set and let them walk around. And if they go dark, they go dark.
In my mind there is no division between me, the director, crew and actors; we are one. We are creating something together.
Being a DoP is not just about practical skills. It is about who you have become, why you are that person, and why you decide put your little spin on the visual. Good cinematography is something you feel not necessarily see.


Michael Snyman
(Credits: The Night Manager, The British, Of Kings and Prophets, The Red Tent)

When I read the initial scripts, I was immediately drawn to the huge ambition they portrayed. The images that presented themselves in my head were no short of spectacular.

I have been fortunate to work with [director] Susanne [Bier] on a few projects prior to The Night Manager. We have a well-earned creative trust in one another.

Our art director, Tom Burton, had done some initial groundwork on the locations.
We began collaborating on the scripts, which set us on a location hunt through Europe for roughly six weeks of conceptualizing and brainstorming ideas. I continuously fed this information back to Susanne for some consensus as her knowledge of Europe and its nooks and crannies is so profound. The puzzle slowly started to come together. The journey through Europe was visually so important to grasp the atmosphere of these locations and then to translate them into the script. It gave me a good sense of where this film should live cinematically.

Being a DOP is a bit like being a chameleon. Each project is so different from the next and you continually have to re-invent yourself. Initially, everyone interprets a script differently and I like to just listen and draw from that. It’s a very interesting exercise to do. You will be amazed how different people visualise things. The art is to take from that what you can and interpret it in your own way visually, draw from your experience and with collaboration put it on the screen.

My approach right from the outset was to treat The Night Manager as a feature film and to try to service the ambition and scale that the scripts deserved. Trying to fit the complex nature of the scripts into a schedule and then realising our budget was not without its challenges.

At the outset I was concerned about the pitfalls of lighting and photographing (operating a camera) such a huge and complex script.
I was always aware not to fall into that trap of compromising the look and feel of the show “just to get it done”; actually in hindsight, it put me inside the story, it put me into our amazing casts’ every action, nuance and subtlety that they so brilliantly portray.

I use both Alexa and Red. For me it is about what you want to achieve out of the script and what it demands. The Night Manager was so diverse and vast I really enjoyed using the Red Dragon. There is a certain ‘organicness’ that is created by this camera that I felt would be great for the story. I have had a great relationship with the camera. I can shoot in very low light with the Dragon sensor. I know how the pictures work and how to work them in post -production. We ran two cameras most of the time to get that “off angle” that is so appealing.

There were so many different worlds in the scripts that it presented me with the opportunity to treat each location with a different look and feel. It came down to how the lighting should work, how the camera should move and how the relationships between the characters developed.

It was important to us not to be contrived but to rather find the subtlety in our approach of TNM. All the creatives were on board with this concept.

Zermatt, London, Devon, Cairo, Istanbul and Mallorca all are so diverse from one another.
We doubled Morocco for Cairo due to the present instability in Cairo and Mallorca for Istanbul for schedule purposes. The logistics involved were a constant challenge.

One of our major challenges was our demanding schedule, which was in constant flux due to the mere logistics involved.
There was a lot of improvisation that took place and changes were constant, it was demanding on all the assistant directors involved to make our seemingly impossible schedule work. I think when we finally reached Mallorca there was a huge sense of relief amongst everyone.


Brendan McGinty

(Credits: The Secret Life of Twins, The Six Queens of Henry VIII, River Monsters: Lair of Giants)

In The Secret Life of Twins, we were looking at identical twins, so any location that was evocative of symmetry was key to us.
We looked for those mirror opposites on locations. More than any shoot I have done, my response on Twins was more to shape that it was to lighting.

We decided not to use handheld. I love handheld – you can be very responsive and the camera can be anywhere you want it to be. But what one has to sign up for with handheld is its visual signature, the camera’s point of view and presence in every image. For the audience it is not invisible or neutral. It is why someone like David Fincher doesn’t like handheld – he loves camera movement but he doesn’t want the heavy-handed signature of handheld.
I used a fairly obscure set of Russian lenses, Lumatech Illumina. I discovered them through a commercial I’d done. They are extraordinary, and flare like hell. They were perfect for Twins, but I haven’t used them since. They hit the right note for that project.

Over the last five years I have increasingly, and now almost exclusively, used the Red Epic
– its most recent manifestation being the Weapon and the Dragon prior to that. I like the ergonomics of the small camera. I think Arri have now got there with the Mini, which is a brilliant camera too.
I love shooting in Raw. With my background as a stills photographer I have existed in the world of Raw colour space for a long time, and I can’t go back. I just think with a 16bit colour space – even if I ‘bake’ a look in for a given project – that Raw is always there as a sort of negative. You have enormous latitude that you can retain in post if you want but also throw away if you don’t want to. 

In the doc world, I live on Angenieux zoom lenses. I use the Optimas, the shorter zooms. I am not really a fan of zoom lenses as lots of DoPs aren’t – with good reason. But Angenieux are the exception to that – they are every bit as good as the prime lenses I like. I’m also not sure any lens flares as beautifully.

When it comes to primes, my go to lenses are Master Primes. I would definitely point to Emmanuel Lubezki’s sensational work at the moment. His current style has a lot to do with the wide Master Primes he is using. I love what he is doing. I look at The Revenant, that very close up, close focus, extreme wide angle work – and don’t think he could do it on any other lens other than Master Primes. The lack of distortion and extreme geometry in them allows you to get very close to someone without distorting them in a way that some wide angles do. In many ways, I think they are the most naturalistic of lenses.

A lot of lensed have too much ‘lens’ in them. Vintage anamorphics are perhaps the most distinctive case of that. To my taste there is possibly too much anamorphic at the moment. I love using them on promos or fashion pieces. But for drama or something more ‘real world’, I find the ‘lens’ in them often too much with their horizontal flares and barrelling. I often find it too heavy handed a signature and it can take me out of the piece.

Posted 24 March 2016 by Tim Dams

In interview: Channel 4's David Abraham

Channel 4 CEO David Abraham tells Tim Dams that privatising the broadcaster would damage the UK’s creative economy

Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham has run the broadcaster since 2010. From the depths of the credit crunch, he has steered C4 through a period of change that culminated last month in it winning the Channel of the Year prize at the Broadcast Awards.

Against this background, the government is weighing up options for C4, including privatisation, in a move that could raise £1bn. Abraham was interviewed on stage by Televisual editor Tim Dams 
at last month’s Broadcast Video Expo.

Given such a challenging TV landscape, isn’t the government right to seek a buyer for C4? “I have worked all my life in the private sector. Private ownership produces great media. But I am also a believer in what people describe in the UK as a special landscape where we have a mixed ecology – 
a BBC funded by the licence fee, Sky by subscription, and commercial broadcasters with public service licences like ITV, C4 and C5. In the case of C4, the model is set in stone, in government legislation. We have a remit and it is pretty specific: it says we should operate as a partnership broadcaster – we shouldn’t have inhouse production and should be a stimulant to the independent production sector. So all of the revenue we make from advertising gets spent with 100s of companies. We raise money in the private sector and spend it in the private sector, but spend in a way that helps both the creative economy of the UK and stimulates the viewer…To put Channel 4 News on 
for an hour at 7pm is not a commercial decision.”

What would happen if C4 went into private ownership? “If we were fully privately owned, [the new owners] would probably stick to the things we do for a while. But, in the end, to improve our profitability – which we would be obliged to do by our shareholders – we would probably look to slice away at that over time. That has been the history of how public service licences have been gamed over time. If you go back to ITV 25 years ago they had a much more onerous public service licence than today.”

You’ve said that a privatised C4 would have to cut costs to deliver profit margins of over 20%?  “It is not just the amount of spend, it is how we spend it. Our breakout shows have often been the result of being able to stick with an idea through thick and thin and see it grow. We can afford to be a little bit more patient than you normally would do.”

What would the impact on indie production be?  “Some analysts have said that of the £600m or so we spend, there are about 19,000 jobs connected to the work that C4 does. You have to assume that quite a significant proportion of the jobs would be at risk if we cut our budgets back. ITV work with less than 100 production companies, we work with over 300. You can see how we would have to change our behavior.”

Where are we in the process now? “C4 exists as a statutory corporation through primary legislation. So if the government gets to the point where it feels it is the right thing to do, there would have to be a debate in parliament, a vote and undoubtedly it would go through the Lords. We’re quite early in the process.”

But has C4 a long-term future on its own, given the changing viewing habits of younger viewers?
“In a good way, that is what keeps us awake at night. The performance of the business over the last 20 years in responding to various changes has been quite good. We were very early on with digital channels: Film4 and E4 went ahead of the ITV and BBC digital channels. We have a very similar overall share today that we had 20 years ago. More recently what we have done is focused on the central question, which is really one of disintermediation... I was determined that we went on a journey to connect to individual viewers. When you go to All4, you are invited to register. That gives us a great relationship to more viewer behavior, and allows us to personalise what you are watching. We are seeing very strong growth in demand for online video because we have quality video and also have first class data. We now have 13m people in the UK registered with us.”

What percentage of C4 revenues come from online? “It’s getting towards 10% of our total revenue. We have already been through one revolution. About a third of our revenue comes from our digital channels, which didn’t exist at the beginning. So we have gone through three big stages of evolution; one was analogue single channel to portfolio; second was digital catch up services; and now All4 as a data-driven multiplatform service.”


1984 Begins career at ad agency Benton and Bowles, going on to found St Lukes
2001 General manager of Discovery UK
2005 President of TLC at Discovery USA
2007 CEO of UKTV
2010 CEO of Channel 4

On US ownership of UK TV companies: “In America you can’t own a big media asset unless you are an American citizen. They are quite happy to protect their own assets, but we are a smaller country with a more open market”

On BBC3’s move online: “We believe in a flexi-linear future. To make shows famous, you are often best off putting them on a terrestrial channel to get people to sample them.”

On commissioning: “Genres don’t operate in silos any more. Our genre teams share ideas at early stages together. Some of most distinctive shows have been the result of counterintuitive choices between genres.

Abraham was speaking at BVE in a session arranged by industry charity the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund (CTBF)

Posted 17 March 2016 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: The Ones Below

The Ones Below is a British thriller with a very European aesthetic. Producer Nikki Parrott tells Tim Dams about the making of the film

Billed as a dark, modern fairy tale, The Ones Below sees the lives of two couples become fatally intertwined. Both couples, who live in flats in the same London building, are expecting their first child. The pregnancies initially bring the couples together, but everything changes after a tragic accident throws the couples into a nightmare and a reign of psychological terror begins.

The Ones Below is the directorial film debut of David Farr, a Royal Shakespeare Company director and screenwriter of TV dramas The Night Manager and Spooks, and feature hit Hanna.

The project dates back to 2012, when Farr began to develop his first feature for BBC Films and Cuba Pictures, the production arm of his agency Curtis Brown. About that time, Farr approached Tigerlily producer Nikki Parrott, a long-term collaborator, to produce his short film Cool Box.

This short, which is similar in terms of characters and story, became a test run for the feature, helping to reassure backers that Farr could make the transition to film director. “It’s about a woman who ended up putting her child in the fridge. There’s a theme running through this…” jokes Parrott.

Farr then sent Parrott his screenplay for The Ones Below. From the short, she says she knew Farr could direct for the screen and had a strong vision. But once she picked up the screenplay, Parrott says she couldn’t put is down. “It was a real page turner.”

Funding, says Parrott, was relatively easy to secure because of the strength of the script, as well as strong relationships with the BBC (which had recently produced Cuba’s London Road) and the BFI, which had backed another Tigerlilly production Remainder. Protagonist boarded as the sales company, while Icon Films pre-bought UK rights.

Additionally, financiers Head Gear Film cash flowed the tax credit. In total, the budget was £2.2m. “We came in on schedule and under budget,” notes Parrott, who says she was always aware of the need to save extra money for post, just in case.

Farr delivered his script in September 2013, and the film was shot for seven weeks the following September. It was a contained shoot, with six weeks spent on location at a large house in Highbury. Production designer Francesca Di Mottola transformed the house to look like two flats, so the audience could believe that one couple lived above, the other below.

The look of the two flats was all-important, dictated by the contrast between the two different couples. The flat below was designed to look nouveau riche, with strong yellows and blues – slightly inspired by Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Upstairs was more cultural and shambolic with a very ‘Farrow and Ball’ look.

In terms of overall look, the reference point was European film rather than British film, adds Parrott, particularly for DoP Ed Rutherford, who lit and shot The Ones Below using an Arri Alexa.  Meanwhile, Di Mottola brought ‘a European style’ to the film. “Because she is from Italy, she saw things in a different light and it wasn’t jaded. That is what gives it such a different feel to some other British films.”

Farr’s theatre background is also key in the look. Parrott describes how Farr frames shots as if they were on a stage, paying attention to where characters and objects are placed and the spaces between them.

“There are a lot of tracking shots but the simpler shots were often the best ones,” notes Parrott of the cinematography. Farr concurs: “We’ve used handheld photography in moments where it is really appropriate, where there are moments of terrific anxiety and a desire to get somewhere. Then there are a lot of other scenes that are quite withheld and quite restrained, where the camera is quite wide and we let the space do more of the work. It’s a mixture in that sense...Often in film when you see a big space and then something really tight, it helps create that feeling of anxiety.”

Editor Chris Wyatt, meanwhile, began assembling the film during the shoot, with Farr popping over several times a week to look at scenes. “It was great – Chris could tell us what we needed more of, and David could see how it was going and how the characters were developing.” Parrott calls Wyatt “one of the most amazing editors I have ever worked with”. Evidently, he helped Farr “squeeze and squeeze and squeeze the film like a cloth” until it was wrung like a tight thriller (the run time is an economic 92 mins). Whole scenes were pulled out of the film, including one car chase which served to introduce the audience to the psycho tendencies of the David Morrissey character.

A few test screenings helped inform the tighter final edit too. Says Parrott: “We realised that we didn’t have to tell everyone all the time what is happening – they like to work it out for themselves.” Post was completed at Molinare (“they were great and really supportive”, says Parrott), with the final edit delivered in May 2015. Since then, it has played at the Toronto, London and Berlin film festivals ahead of its UK release this month.

Looking back, Parrott says the toughest time for her as a producer was at the very beginning, in pre-production. It’s then that the film looks all set to happen, but could still fall apart. “The pressure of that is really scary. You have got people working to you – and you have to keep the whole thing going. As a producer, you have to believe – if you don’t, no one else will believe for you.”

The Ones Below is released on March 11

Cast Clemence Poesy, Stephen Campbell Moore, David Morrissey, Laura Birn

Production companies Cuba Pictures in assoc with Tigerlily Films

Writer director 
David Farr

Producer Nikki Parrott

Exec producers Dixie Linder, Nick Marston, Ben Hall, Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Lizzie Francke and Nigel Williams

Line producer Yvonne Isimeme Ibazebo

DoP Ed Rutherford

Editor Chris Wyatt

Production design Francesca Di Mottola

Post production picture and vfx Molinare

Camera Arri Alexa

Posted 10 March 2016 by Tim Dams

Televisual Salary Survey - what do you earn?

Do you want to know how much people earn in this industry?

And what the going rate really is for jobs such as a runner, researcher, producer, editor or director? 

Then please take part in Televisual’s 23rd salary survey which helps us compile our annual snapshot of what people earn in TV, commercials, film, corporate and digital media. 

Click here to take part.

The full results will be published in Televisual's April 2016 issue and on 

The survey is completely anonymous. We don't ask your name or company and have no way of tracing who responds. 

So please just click here and follow the questions through (it should take you about 2 minutes).  

Many thanks.

Posted 10 March 2016 by Tim Dams
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